STAGE REVIEW: ‘Clarkston’

Sam Lilja - Photo by Karen Almond

Sam Lilja as Chris in ‘Clarkston.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

It’s training day at the Clarkston Costco warehouse. Chris (Sam Lilja) is the veteran, instructing newcomer Jake (Taylor Trensch) on the procedures. They are not complicated: Move this inventory from this box to this shelf; repeat. Show up on time. And try not to break anything. It’s grunt work, but solid employment for the natives of this humble berg on the Idaho/Washington border.

Only Jake isn’t a native. He’s that rarest of birds — a newcomer who seems to want to slow down and take root in this town best known for being a stop on the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a stopover on their route to the Pacific Ocean, and nobody has thought much about it since then. It’s like a lot of small-town life: The dull wallpaper of Americana. So what brings Jake here?

Clarkston, Samuel D. Hunter’s world premiere at the Wyly Theatre (a companion to his prior play Lewiston, also set in the creaky Upper Midwest), has a hint of mystery to it, not unlike most classic-structure character-driven plays, of which this falls firmly within the tradition: Three characters, minimal set, one act (though, at 105 minutes, not a short play). The drama derives from the interpersonal relationships, the reveal of information Jake and Chris secrete and only dole out occasionally. That’s not a lot of forward-thrust to sustain a play (unlike, say, All My Sons the reveals never rise to the level of “caused the deaths of soldiers”), though for the first two-thirds, you don’t really notice: You do get caught up in their lives.

The more interesting life, as it turns out, is Chris’. He’s a hotbed of hidden emotions. Gay but largely closeted, with a meth-head mom (Heidi Armbruster, all day-sweats and trembling lower lip) and absent dad, Chris aspires to be a novelist (he’s applied to the prestigious and exclusive Iowa Writers Workshop) and is saving up money to get out of Clarkston. Jake, though, is the emotional opposite. Out and proud, from a family of means, he over-shares like that person on Facebook we all want to unfriend. But his secrets are more dire: He’s suffering from a form of Huntingon’s disease that should kill him within the decade. He’s looking for real world experiences … which, apparently, include systematically destroying Chris’ life.

Oh, dear. We all have a Jake in our lives. Deeply insecure but defiantly unapologetic, he seeks to live others’ lives for them: Interceding in their affairs, betraying confidences, acting out of spite and malice without thought for consequences. For the first half of Clarkston, you think this will be his story, but it’s really Chris’ — a prosaic tragedy, as if Willy Loman got cut down before he even met Linda. The transition, though, feels abrupt, and when you realize the pain Jake has caused, it’s difficult to sympathize with him at all … which makes the ending (seemingly hopeful, despite everything that came before it) feel tacked-on and inauthentic.

Still, for most of the performance you do get caught up in the details of these lives, their sadness and their specificity. It’s a chamber piece with promise.

Through Jan. 31 at the Wyly Theatre Studio.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Arts notes … and some things to do this weekend

5 Women extends run at CTD

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, a catty Southern-fried (and queerish) comedy about bridesmaids that’s in a fun production at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, has extended its run. Rather than closing this Sunday, you get an extra weekend to see the show (which I reviewed here). The additional performances will be Friday, July 15 and Saturday, July 16 at 8 p.m. and a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, July 17.

Ease on Down the Road to Wyly tonight

The Dallas Theater Center holds a pay-what-you-can performance of the new show, The Wiz, tonight at 8, but before that you can come to a street party in the Arts District, starting at 5 p.m.

Tiff’s Treats opens this weekend in Plano

I don’t mind admitting that I am addicted to Tiff’s Treats, the local company that delivers warm, delicious, fat-, calorie- and cholesterol-free (OK, I make up those last ones) cookies. They come in a metal lined box — how can you not love these? There are now three Tiff’s Treats stores in the Metroplex, and the fourth opens this weekend. You can come the pre-opening event on Saturday, where sales will benefit the Make-A-Wish foundation, with the grand opening on Sunday. The locale is 5750 State Highway 121.

Dish holds Drag Brunch Sunday

Dish Restaurant in the ilume continues its monthly drag brunch on Sunday, with hosts Krystal Summers and Erica Andrews. There are two seatings, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., with a flat $25 including bottomless mimosas.

Page One opens July 15

In today’s print edition, we reviewed the documentary Page One, but the movie is not opening today but rather next Friday, July 15, at the Angeilka Fil Centers in Plano and Mokingbird Station.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones